After Nearly Quitting the Sport, Washington Commit Leah Smith Wins the Nastia Liukin Cup

When Leah Smith was 14 years old, she suffered a back injury that almost ended her career. Doctors told her that she may never be able to do gymnastics again, yet after having surgery and taking a one-year break from the sport, she was back “much stronger and more determined than ever.”

Four years later, as the newly crowned Nastia Liukin Cup champion, Smith can now reflect on her journey to level 10 success and believes that resiliency was the key to her achievements. “You should always work hard and believe in yourself no matter how rocky the road may be, and never ever give up on your dreams,” she said.

In February, Smith qualified to her very first NLC. She was elated, as qualifying to the Cup had been a long-term goal of hers. Going into the competition, she was confident in her preparation and tried to focus on enjoying the experience, rather than on the outcome. 

The dream of winning the competition, though, was difficult to cast aside. “I think that gymnasts who make it to the NLC all believe deep down inside that they can win because it is so difficult to even qualify,” Smith said. “And being in the company of such amazing competitors pushes you to want to do your absolute best.”

On competition day, Smith started off on vault with a beautifully floated Yurchenko full and went on to post the highest score of the day on bars. Going into beam, she was nervous as it was the apparatus on which she struggled the most in the past, but once again she hit a superb set. “My beam routine is the performance I was most proud of,” Smith said. “My coaches really worked on helping me fine tune the small details and become more confident and consistent. I was beyond excited and very proud of myself after I hit my routine that day.”

After three brilliant routines, Smith was top of the leaderboard and needed a modest score to win the competition. At the time, though, she was unaware of it, despite being the very last gymnast up on floor. “Going into the last rotation, I was no longer keeping track of the scores, and I didn’t know what I needed to win,” she said. “But floor is my absolute favorite event, so I was excited about getting out there and performing.”

She stuck all three of her tumbling passes, including her huge full-twisting double pike mount, and posted the highest score of the day on floor, too. It was the perfect ending to a perfect competition for Smith, who is still over the moon about her victory. Winning the Cup “was a dream come true,” she said. “Achieving all of this in my last year as a J.O. gymnast is so surreal. I’m still on cloud nine and enjoying every minute of it.”

The support of the other gymnasts, who cheered her on from the sidelines, as well as the sparkly leotards and the flashy lights and music in the arena, added to the magical atmosphere of the competition. “It got me really pumped up for what I imagine my college gymnastics competition experience will be like, and I can’t wait,” Smith said.

Smith is signed with Washington for the 2022 season. To better prepare for college, last year Smith decided to switch gyms from AIM to World Champions Centre to train with Laurent and Cécile Landi, who also coach Simone Biles. “Being coached by Laurent and Cécile has been amazing for my gymnastics, and I have improved so much in a short period of time,” Smith said. “They are also really fun to be around and very supportive.”

Her new coaches also helped her a lot during the time in which their gym was closed because of the pandemic, having daily Zoom sessions where she and her clubmates trained virtually as a team at home. Once back, they developed a plan that helped them gain back their skills quickly and safely. “Now we are better than ever,” Smith said.

Additionally, training alongside Biles has been a source of inspiration for Smith. “Watching how hard she works in the gym every day and how dedicated she is to the sport motivates me to do my very best,” Smith said. “She is always very encouraging and gives the best advice.”

Smith’s gym switch has paid off. Together with winning the NLC, she achieved another of her long-term goals this year: score a perfect 10.0 on floor at the Biles Invitational. “To achieve this goal in my senior year at our home meet was just the icing on the cake,” Smith said. “All of my teammates and coaches were cheering so loud and that was so special. I felt like I was already in college, and that felt amazing.”

Smith was originally committed to California but later decided to switch to Washington when the Huskies offered her a full scholarship. “I received a fantastic offer from the University of Washington, so I decided to change my commitment,” Smith said. 

Smith was also attracted by Washington’s medical school, one of the best in the country, as she would like to work in the medical field one day, and she came to love the gymnastics coaches and her future teammates. “They are all super nice and welcoming, and I can’t wait to join them and contribute to the team,” she said.

What is she most looking forward to? “College life and experiencing the adrenaline and excitement of competing with my team in college,” Smith said. Her ultimate goal is to win a national title with the Huskies. “I really think that our team will achieve that,” she predicted.

After an incredible 2021 season so far and a bright future ahead of her at Washington, Smith hopes that her ability to overcome the difficulties she had to endure throughout her career will be a source of inspiration for younger gymnasts looking up to her. “My favorite quote is ‘The comeback is always stronger than the setback,’” she said. “I am proud to say that I am proof of this.”

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Article by Talitha Ilacqua

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